If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s been the mantra of documentary filmmaking legend Frederick Wiseman for a half-century now.
On Thursday, April 21, the Northwest Film Center will host Wiseman for a 35mm screening of his first feature, 1967’s notorious “Titicut Follies.” Filmed inside the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State Hospital for the criminally insane, it unflinchingly depicted abuses that included forced nudity and force-feeding of inmates. It was a landmark of both observational, “direct cinema” style and led to legislative reforms, but was difficult if not impossible to screen for decades after its making.
Wiseman has gone on to make another forty documentaries, almost all of which explore some sort of institution (“Public Housing,” “Hospital,” “National Gallery”) using the same basic technique as his first. His latest film, 2015’s “In Jackson Heights,” is a testament to the remarkably diverse New York neighborhood of its title.
The 86-year-old Wiseman shows no signs of slowing. He took the time to call during a Sunday layover in a Washington, D.C. airport, on his way to Chicago. We talked about his upcoming visit to Portland, his time-tested methods, and the legacy of “Titicut Follies.”
OAW: First of all, thanks for taking time out of what sounds like a busy travel schedule to speak with me.
FW: Happy to do it.
OAW: “Titicut Follies” was shot fifty years ago. What prompts you to continue to travel around and discuss it?
FW: They wanted to show it. They knew I was going to be in Portland. So I agreed to talk afterwards. I was pleased to be invited. I had been thinking about visiting, and they had wanted to have me out there for a while, so the interests coincided.
OAW: Is it at all surreal to look back on a film you made that long ago and realize its continued impact and influence?
FW: It’s hard for me to say about its influence. It’s not a judgment I would make on my own. I’m always pleased when people tell me that it’s influenced them. Many people have, over the years.
OAW: It certainly established a signature style that you’ve stuck with over the years. I think of you as perhaps the most consistent filmmaker in, maybe, history. How did you know, right off the bat, essentially, that you’d hit on a winning formula?
FW: I didn’t know if I had hit on a winning formula. I liked working in this style. It seemed to me an appropriate style to use when I was trying to make films about real situations, where I wasn’t asking people to do anything especially for me. And using a hand-held tape recorder, and a hand-held camera, and no artificial light, lends itself to that. The idea always has been to capture as many different aspects of what’s going on in the world as I can on film.
OAW: Is “Titicut Follies” a movie you (or anyone) could even make today? It seems like it would be harder to get legal permission, and that even if you did, people have a much higher degree of self-consciousness around cameras, especially in an environment like Bridgewater.
FW: To answer the second part of your question first, I’m still making these movies, as you know, and people rarely say no. They rarely look at the camera. So to shoot one of these movies now is no different than in 1966 in terms of the people who are in the film. In terms of getting permission from the authorities, it’s hard to answer that question, because there’s no uniform response. I never tried to make another movie in a prison for the criminally insane, so I don’t know.
OAW: I was reminded watching the film of the Abu Ghraib photos and the way in which the authority figures in them, like the guards and doctors in “Titicut Follies,” don’t exhibit any shame or self-consciousness as they perpetrate some pretty heinous actions in front of a camera.
FW: People act in ways they think are appropriate for the situation they’re in. You and I may not share their view of what constitutes appropriate behavior. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib thought what they were doing was okay, as did the guards at Bridgewater. It’s horrible what went on at Bridgewater, but Abu Ghraib was much worse. [Although] they’re on the same spectrum.
OAW: You were legally prohibited from screening “Titicut Follies” for decades. What changed that allowed it to be publicly shown?
FW: It’s a long story which I’ll try to give you in short form. I knew the prison because I used to teach law and I took the students there on field trips. When I decided I wanted to make movies, I thought that [it] would be a good subject. I approached the superintendent and he said okay, but I had to get permission from the Commissioner of Corrections. The Commissioner of Corrections initially said no, so I went to see the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Elliot Richardson. He called the Commissioner of Corrections in my presence and told him to give me permission.
I then made the movie and I showed it to Richardson and the commissioner and the superintendent, and they all liked it. [Then] some reviews started to appear. A social worker in Minnesota wrote a letter to the then-governor of Massachusetts saying it was horrible that he had allowed me to make the movie and to show men naked in their cells. This was the first the governor had heard of it.
By the time the movie was finished, Richardson was Attorney General of Masachusetts, and he was thinking about running for the Senate. He thought his career would be damaged when his participation became public. I know all this because I met somebody who worked in his office, who attended a day-long meeting about whether they should support the film or whether they should try to get an injunction. And they ended up getting the injunction.
Then there was a trial. There were several allegations. The first was that I had breached an oral contract giving the state final cut on the film. There was no documentary evidence of that whatsoever. It was simply my word against the Commissioner of Corrections’ word. Then they claimed that the film was an invasion of privacy of the man who is shown naked in his cell, Jim. At the time the film was made, there was no right of privacy in Massachusetts, and there were a number of Supreme Court decisions saying that when the right to privacy came into conflict with the First Amendment, the First Amendment was the dominant value. And our argument was that the film was protected by the First Amendment. The third allegation was that all the receipts of the film should be held in trust to the benefit of the inmates. Well, at that point, there were no receipts, so that was a non-question.
There was a nineteen-day trial, and the decision of the judge was that the negative should be destroyed. He described the film as “a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities,” and he found that I had breached the oral contract, and he found that a right of privacy exists in Massachusetts, for the first time. The film then became the only film in American history to be banned on these grounds.
The case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and they found that the film had value, but could only be seen by special audiences, consisting of doctors, lawyers, judges, legislators, people interested in custodial care, and students in these and related fields. I could show the film if I gave the court and the attorney general a week’s notice of any screening and sign an affidavit that, to my personal knowledge, everybody in the audience was within the class of people allowed to see the film.
That didn’t really help me very much, because I had no way of investigating all the people who came to see the film. That went on for several years, so the film was not shown. Then around 1973 or 1974, there was a new attorney general—Richardson had gone on to greater glory in Washington with the Nixon administration. The new attorney general said that if someone represented to me that all of the people coming to see the film were in the class of people allowed to see it, then I could rely on that representation. It took the burden of proof off of me.
So the film started to be shown, somewhat, on college campuses. That situation persisted until the mid-1980s, when the original judge in the case died. There was a headline in the Boston Globe that read “’Titicut Follies’ Judge Dead,” which I didn’t regret reading. So we brought a motion to have the case reconsidered. If we had brought it earlier, we would have had to go in front of the same judge who ruled against us initially. The new judge appointed a master to investigate the consequences of showing the film on the surviving inmates, of which at that point there were about 30. The master found that the showing of the film would not damage the surviving inmates. The new judge said I could show the film if I blacked out the faces of the inmates. I said I would not do that and that it was technically impossible on film. He reconsidered and finally said the film is fully protected by the First Amendment. That was about 1989. Only then could the film be freely shown. I was sorely tempted to put on the marquee, when it was shown in Boston, what the original judge had said: “a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities.”
So that’s the short version of the story.
OAW: In recent years, you seem to have slightly shifted focus from governmental or social institutions—“Public Housing,” “State Legislature,” etc.–to cultural ones, whether the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris or an urban neighborhood. In the former, people are often robbed of their individual humanity by forces of authority; in the latter, people voluntary surrender some of their individuality in the name of a greater good. Do you see it that way?
FW: I understand your point, but that’s not really what I have in mind. It’s to make films on as many subjects as possible. Sometimes you see people doing good and useful and important things, and that’s just as important a subject as a place that’s horrible. The University of California at Berkeley is a great university and I think it’s important to show that. The doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel in Boston really care about their patients, and it’s important to show that. That’s not a shift in my approach, it’s just a reflection of the idea that I don’t want to be stuck in a rut.
OAW: You’ve been able to maintain real independence in the distribution of your work, including the fact that the DVDs are only available through your company, Zipporah Films. What motivated that approach and has it been difficult to maintain?
FW: The first two films I did, “Titicut Follies” and “High School,” were distributed by Grove Press. And I got screwed so badly by them. They cheated me, so I sued Barney Rosset, got the money that he owed me and got the rights back. Ever since then, I’ve kept control of the distribution of my films. That way, if money comes in, I get to keep it. If mistakes are made and no money comes in, it’s our doing.
OAW: There’s a scene in “Titicut Follies” where an inmate goes on a lengthy quasi-political rant, and it reminded me of Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor,” which is also set in an insane asylum and contains some notable speeches on topical issues including race. Had you seen it when you made “Titicut Follies”?
FW: I’ve never seen it. When was it made?
OAW: 1962 or 1963, I’d say. [It’s 1963.]
FW: Hmm. No, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it. That guy [in “Titicut Follies”] could have been a student of Henry Kissinger’s. He’s quite mad; it’s funny.
OAW: Has there been an effort to follow up on the Bridgewater inmates and find out whatever happened to them?
FW: No, I do know about a couple of them. Vladimir, for instance, the young man in the case conference at the end of the film, finally got released ten or fifteen years after the movie was released. He called me up and wanted to see the movie so I showed it to him. At that point he was working at a grocery store somewhere.
OAW: He’s the one who seems the most cogent and reasonable of all the inmates.
FW: Yes. He’s the fulcrum of the film, really. His critiques of Bridgewater are quite reasonable, but it’s also true that he needed help, because he thought his coffee was being poisoned. About a year ago I got a letter from his niece saying that he had died and that she was writing a book about his life. She wanted to know if she could use some pictures from the film, and I said of course. I don’t know if the book got published or not; I must find out.
(“Titicut Follies” screens at 6 pm on Thursday, April 21, at the Northwest Film Center, followed by a q & a with director Frederick Wiseman.)